Thursday, September 15, 2016

Selected Shorts

By the early 1920s sound film was coming ever closer to fruition. Lee DeForest, whose audion tube made commercial radio possible, was producing sound shorts with major names of the theatre, opera, and vaudeville worlds.

An early example features Eddie Cantor, who by this time had worked his way from vaudeville child actor and Ziegfeld comedian to star of his own Broadway vehicles like Kid Boots.


Cantor's energetic likability is clear even today, and the short is pleasant enough. His material however is not terribly strong, and he comes off best when singing comic songs, like the one about preferring dumb girls because they make better lovers. Cantor actually made a silent feature (Kid Boots, with Clara Bow yet) but his appeal owed too much to his voice (he was a major recording artist of the era). He wouldn't make a significant impact in films until the talkie Whoopee in 1930.

By the later 20s Warner Brothers release of The Jazz Singer proved talking pictures commercially viable. Along with sound features Warners also made talkie shorts through their Vitaphone subsidiary, In addition to the usual operatic sopranos and tenors, these Vitaphone shorts included some very intriguing vaudeville acts.

Conlin and Glass were a married couple who'd been in vaudeville for years:

In 1928 Vitaphone filmed their stage routine "Morning, Noon, and Night" as Sharps and Flats. Here are two brief excerpts:

Miss Glass doesn't really add much to the comic proceedings, her role being to irritate Mr. Conlin and allow him various fits of annoyance.

She also comes close to ruining the later scenes by laughing at Conlin's shenanigans (when will people learn laughter is not funny?).

Conlin still manages to amuse while playing the piano or fighting against a curtain that seems to hate him -- one of some surrealistic touches that give this a cinematic quality miles ahead of the Cantor short.

Jimmy Conlin would go on to a long career as a movie character actor (he's even in Anatomy of a Murder). He's best remembered as a member of Preston Sturges' stock company -- he's the con who laughs at Mickey Mouse beside Joel McCrea in Sullivan's Travels.

Another Vitaphone short from 1928 features the veteran vaudeville team of Shaw and Lee.

While there were a few unorthodox touches in Conlin and Glass' film, their act itself was pretty straightforward -- straightwoman and eccentric comedian. But Shaw and Lee's act is quite unconventional, even downright odd:

Shaw and Lee - The Beau Brummels

They barely move for most of the footage and when they do move it is quite mechanical, like automatons. They seldom change facial expressions and speak mostly in monotone, occasionally even speaking in unison. Their material is mostly a non-sequitur style known at the time as "nut humor".

Many of their jokes are just okay, but they are made funny by the deadpan delivery and the duo's pod-people, Stepford Wife eyes.

Although a classic routine, this proved a dead end for the team. How can you have a film career out of being so unanimated? I've seen a later Shaw and Lee film appearance from the 1940s, and in that they predictably behave in an anarchic Stooges and Costello manner.

One more short for lagniappe, as they say in New Orleans. James Sibley Watson was a physician and wealthy patron of the arts who co-edited the avant-garde literary magazine The Dial. He also worked in film, making an expressionistic adaptation of Poe's Fall of the House of Usher that attracted some attention. But his next film was an oddity that makes The Beau Brummels seem positively mundane. Tomatos Another Day (1930) is a spoof of early talkies and their staticly expository style.

Although you could make a case it's distantly related to the Beau Brummels (sort of a parody of vaudeville teams, the way Rodney Dangerfield was a parody of Borscht Belt comics) it reminds me of Groucho Marx's lampoon of Strange Interlude in Animal Crackers. The difference is while that monologue had non-sequiturs and puns and other styles of humor, there's one joke here: the over-descriptive dialogue of early talkies. A guy leaves the room, and the girl says, "He's gone". Then after a long pause: "I am alone".

Allegedly Tomatos Another Day was shown once at a Boston theater to extremely negative reaction and never shown again. Watson himself deemed it a total failure. I can kind of understand it not going over well at the time -- audiences had abandoned silent film for dialogue, no matter how inept, and didn't want to see their preferences insulted. It plays better today, and can actually be seen as part of the parody sub-genre, along with such films as Buster Keaton's The Frozen North, Blazing Saddles, and Airplane.

If you're interested in exploring humor more thoroughly, check out my book What's So Funny? Theories Of Comedy, available at Amazon.

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